There’s black ice on Jackson Street, and right now I wish Jojo was the girl sitting next to me. Shoes off, feet up on the dash, hand stuck out the window like she’s egging on the 20 below wind chill—that’d be Jojo. “We got this, Les,” she’d say, and our car would fall in sync with the stoplights and the potholes and the other cars, like we’re playing that game at the bar where you have to guide a silver marble through a maze by tilting the board to avoid the traps. We’d play that game over and over, me against Jojo, sneaking rum into her cherry cola as our bets entertained my customers. “See?” she’d say, thick in late-teenage swagger. “Women have better control.” Her runs always made it farthest. I liked that she never let me win.
But these days I’ve got Callie—tiny, scrunched-up, newly 21 year-old Callie—in my passenger seat with her arms around her knees, and she’s shivering and staring down at the bread bag full of sunflower seeds in her lap. Head cocked, damp hair poking out from under her hood, tongue slipping over chapped lips—that’s Cal. She doesn’t say much. Neither do I. Sunshine on the snow gives me a headache, and the tires keep riding up a ridge of frozen slush next to the centerline. All around us, cars hit the brakes too fast into skids. Two decades of experience winter driving—almost three, if you count my middle school paper route—and I’m still white-knuckling the steering wheel inside my gloves.
Callie slides a hand out of her mittens and fiddles with the temp control. She turns the vents, and a burst of cold air hits our faces.
“Heat doesn’t work,” I say.
“I know. I just want to test it.”
“It doesn’t work. It’ll frost up the windshield.”
She flips it off and sucks her fingertips. I stop at a light, and a salt spreader rolls by, scatters dirty pellets across the road, breaks twigs off already-broken branches.
“You’ll be in and out, anyway,” I say.
She squints into the sun. “Don’t forget the stop behind Mike’s Place,” she says.
Whenever Jojo was bored, she’d ask me what I thought people in China were doing right then.
“Having sex,” I’d say, when I felt the mood.
She’d push my face away, work her mouth into that tight smile of hers. “For God’s sake, Les, they can’t always be having sex.”
“What do you think, Jojo? There’s a lot of people in China. How did they get there?” By then my hands were all over her. She’d grab them and stretch my arms out to either side, away from her body, but I’d take her over pretty quick and move our arms together, up and down like we were kids making angels in the snow. When she tried to let go, shaking her hands to get free, I held on tighter and kept us moving. Soon she’d laugh and play along, get our arms going even faster, tell me she would wear me out.
“You better,” I’d say, and then she let me kiss her.
I tried that with Callie once, asking her about people in China, about a month ago when it was the holidays and things still felt new. She said I should ask about India instead, because “don’t they have that law in China about one child per couple?” Pretty sure she’s right. One child per, maybe two.
“OK, but why India?”
“India’s got the second-biggest population.” We were at her mom’s house, sneaking butter cookies from a tin, and collecting plastic milk jugs and wood scraps for her projects into a pile on the kitchen floor. Two Christmas stockings hung from a shelf above the table; Callie’s had a lasso-throwing Santa that wore a sequin vest and cowboy boots. It was around noon, her mom was at work—to this day we haven’t officially met. I only saw her that one time when Callie brought her into the bar. I mixed her a wine spritzer, but a quick wave was all the interaction I could manage—there was a late Packer game, and all our regulars brought along friends. When Callie leaned in to grab the drinks, she poked me hard on the forearm to instigate that wave. Her mother was older than I expected and wore glasses on a chain, which I’d only ever seen on TV. I couldn’t picture her with a kid younger than forty, let alone one as young as Cal.
She bit into another cookie, then set it on the counter. “It makes zero sense, you know. New York’s also got a big population—Milwaukee, Chicago—and fucking’s not the reason why.” We hunted through a recycling bin under the sink, pulled out two more jugs. “But India works better than China, given the context.”
“How’d you get so smart?” I had to ask. She graduated from the same high school as me, sixteen years after.
I called her a brainiac. She munched the rest of her cookie and ran her hand down my chest, tickled my sucked-in stomach. Loosened my belt. Turns out I didn’t even need the China question.
“I try to help,” she said.
She always tries to help. Like now: she transformed those scraps of wood and plastic into bird feeders we hung up throughout the city, and we’re driving around like we do every Sunday to fill them with seed. She got the idea after she read some article about the polar ice caps, about how we’re going to get longer winters here because the arctic can’t hold the cold. So she set out to save every bird in Oshkosh from untimely death—been talking about roosting houses and heated birdbaths, even. She’s at that age when anything seems possible.
I watch her shake the seeds in the bread bag, dig in her fingers to work apart clumps. “It’s like they were wet and froze,” she says.
“Shouldn’t be,” I say. She shakes the bag again. “I still don’t get why you had to switch from corn.”
“Black oil sunflower seed is higher in calories.”
The light turns, and the dumb shit in front of us spins his tires. “No kidding. Everyone just needs to slow the fuck down.”
She sighs. “I meant life-and-death for them. The birds.”
We pull into the lot by Mike’s. “Keep watch?” she asks, and I nod, kill the engine. She’s still got her mittens off. At least she wore snow boots this time. It’s a covered lot, but she has to walk between two mountains of snow—the work of somebody’s plow—to get to the batch of trees where the feeder hangs. She’s got probably twenty in different places around town, these homemade bird feeders strung from wire hangers she’d bent and twisted with pliers. So far, nobody’s taken down any.
I thump my shoes, slap my gloves together to keep warm. Watching her unscrew the cap from the milk jug and pour in the birdseed with her bare hands, I wonder how she makes her blood flow. Near the end of our relationship, Jojo wouldn’t have gotten out from under the covers on a day like this, wouldn’t have eaten or showered, even. Like a hibernating bear. But Cal dragged me outside as soon as I got home from the bar. It was four in the morning with the moon still high. She tossed me the comforter off my bed. Her hair was wet, and she had wrapped the blanket from the sofa around her shoulders.
“Out here? Christ, it’s too cold.”
“Birds have to be out here.” She tugged me to the ground and told me to stop shivering.
“No birds are fucking this time of year.”
“Raptors are.” She bent over me. “Don’t think,” she said into my ear, and her voice stopped up my throat. I wrapped my comforter around myself neck-to-toes and stayed there, flat on my back, more obedient than a dog.
Callie stood over me and let her blanket fall down from her shoulders. She stayed like that for what I thought was forever: her long, wet hair flipped back from her forehead, her arms uncrossed, hiding nothing, her body beautiful and trembling in the moonlight. She turned and squinted at my neighbor’s dark windows, and then down at me. She was smiling, radiant. Even glowing, I’d say. It was like one of those shot-glass barmaids had come to life, and I was sure there was nothing I could do to give her a proper welcome. The frost was melting under my comforter, making me wet in a bad way. I was cold to the core.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” I said, but she crouched down and pushed the comforter open.
“Shut up, Les.” Her nipples were cold like marbles when she rubbed against me, but she was warm between her legs where she pushed our fingers. She straddled me and touched me, her warm fingertips stroked me, and when she licked me I felt a pulse—but it was slight. Too slight. Shivering, she took me in her mouth.
“Cal,” I said.
A little shake of the head. I couldn’t feel a damn thing.
“Cal, you’re working too hard.” She ignored me, ignored her shivers, tensed her leg muscles so much her toes curled. I reached out and touched her hair. It was frozen, strands stuck together in tiny bundles. I patted her head. “Come on. Stop it.” I patted again. Finally, she stopped. She turned away from me, slapped the ground with her open hand.
Back inside, I tossed our blankets into the hamper and took a shower, set the water so hot my feet turned red. I used Jojo’s mint shampoo that I found in the back of the linen closet. It made my scalp tingle, and I thought about her long fingernails, painted like American flags for the Fourth of July, like speckled eggs for Easter. Covered in pizza grease more often than not. Their clackclackclackclack on her computer keys. She typed so fast.
Callie was waiting for me in the bedroom, naked still, on her knees with her forehead pressed against the mattress. She unfolded her arms, pushed her ass high in the air. “Come here.” Her voice was muffled. The blinds were lifted, the windows cranked open.
“You’ll freeze me out again,” I said.
She didn’t trouble to raise her head from the mattress. “Come here.”
Her smell mixed with the smell outside, the smell of dirt and wood burning furnaces and salt on the highway, and it was kind of sweet, kind of fresh. Goosebumps rippled across her back. I yawned so hard that I coughed to breathe, but my hands squeezed her hips, and she spread her knees, rooted herself there.
She comes back to the car with the bread bag, touches my skin inside the glove. “I don’t thank you enough,” she says.
Cold air sweeps in from the door closing, clings to her and stings my eyes—but I swear her hand is warmer than mine. “You do plenty.”
“They emptied it.” She nods toward the bird feeder in the trees, and her hand slips farther into my glove. “Ate everything. They’re going to make it because of us.”
“Because of you.”
She shakes her head. “One person can’t really make a difference.”
Depends on the person, I think and pull away. I tell her I need coffee.
“Sounds good.” She picks up her mittens from the floor, whips them over the backseat. I start the car and turn back onto Jackson. Staring straight ahead, she’s got her jaw pushed forward. I know better than to ask about the mittens, to insist that she wear them.
We’re sitting in the drive-through when Cal points out a banner strung across the front of the Columbus Club next door. The banner reads BIRD FAIR in red like it’s the goddamn word of the day. “Wonder what that means.”
She shrugs. “I guess they have birds for sale.”
“And cotton candy? Ring toss?”
“Shut up. It’s not like that.”
The speaker blares a girl’s voice. She apologizes for the wait and asks to take our order. I tell her I want two coffees, and she invites me to pull ahead to the second window—which I would do, except I’m stuck behind a Focus.
“We should go.”
I find some money in my coat pocket and ask Callie, “What do you need a bird for?”
“I don’t need a bird,” she says. “We don’t need a bird. It’s not about getting a bird.”
The Focus creeps forward. I do the same. The line of cars behind us grows, curls around the side of the building. I roll down the window and hope it doesn’t get stuck this time.
“Cream or sugar?” asks the cashier. I tip my head toward the passenger seat.
“Both,” says Callie.
I give the cashier a single and a handful of change. “You mind counting that for me?” She nods and closes her little window.
Callie’s got her arms crossed. I feel bad, but I don’t believe her that this isn’t about getting a bird. The way she’s been acting, she’ll walk into the place and want to bring them all home. Bring them all to my home. I can feel myself getting roped into it here, back under surveillance, burdened by expectations. I was lucky with Jojo. She never wanted anything she’d have to take care of.
The cashier comes back, gives me my change. I drop it into the ashtray. Then she hands me a coffee with packets of sugar and cream, and I give it all to Callie before turning back to the drive-through window. The cashier’s too young, but she’s got a pretty smile.
“I bet you go through a lot of coffee here in the morning,” I say as she hands me the other cup.
The girl’s cheeks turn bright pink. “Oh, no. I don’t like it.”
Callie laughs, and I gulp my coffee, burn both my tongue and the roof of my mouth just to buy time. The car in line behind me honks, and I flip off the driver and roll up my window, wave goodbye to the cashier. I feel Callie’s hand press my thigh. “Yeah, OK,” I say. “Let’s go.” I pull out of the drive-through, cross to the lot next door, and park the car.
Inside the Columbus Club there’s pink paneling in the foyer and a corkboard of flyers that plug its banquet hall for weddings and baby showers. Callie lingers, pushes thumbtacks deep into the board so it’ll be a struggle to get them out again. I hurry toward a middle-aged woman who sits at a card table outside the coatroom so we can move this along. A smaller version of the banner outside is taped up behind the woman, and on the card table is a green and yellow parrot perched on a stand. Callie joins me, pulls at my belt to get me a step closer to her.
“Admission for two?” says the woman.
“Eight dollars, please.”
I don’t respond. The bird is staring straight at me—only I can’t tell for sure because its eyes are just shiny black dots. Parrots in movies always crack jokes, always speak truth through a punch line. This one stays quiet.
“I can pay,” says Callie. I shake my head but don’t move otherwise. The woman squints into the space between us.
Callie sighs. I feel her chin press my shoulder, and her fingers dip in and out of my back pocket. She pushes my wallet into my hands. I fumble around with it, unfold a bill, and give it to the woman. The whole time, I’m looking at that bird, waiting for it to blink or something.
“I can’t change a fifty,” says the woman. Another sigh and Callie nabs my wallet.
The bird lowers its head into a food dish and picks up a seed, spins it around in its beak. Its eyes never look away from me, I think. The bird cocks its head, and a little tongue darts back and forth around the seed. I picture tiny muscles and bones working like a machine beneath the yellow feathers on its head to shift and stretch and click all the bird-parts into place. Somebody, maybe a teacher, once told me that birds have hollow bones so they’re light enough to fly—bones with nothing inside. The thought makes me shiver like I’m out on the cold ground again with Cal. The bird crunches the seed in half, and I flinch. Callie’s hand is on my ass. She’s putting away my wallet.
The woman grabs my hand and punches the back of it with a stamp. “This lil’ guy’s our first raffle prize,” she says, pointing to the bird and stressing the rhyme like she’s talking to little kids. “Drawing’s in ten minutes. Follow the squawks.” She jerks her thumb toward a set of double doors on her left.
The banquet hall is like a snowstorm of feathers inside a circus—like the bar on New Year’s when Jojo’d hand out boas to all the girls. Rows of folding tables look ready to buckle. There's cages filled with birds, bins filled with toys, tubs filled with seeds and pellets. The birds hunker down on one foot or climb on the bars, fling toys and dishes out of their way. Some sound buzzy and float around in their cages like black and brown spotted snowflakes; some stay still, big-eyed and scared. The larger ones get held in front of our faces to repeat songs and a few words. I hear “pretty bird” and the wolf whistle, mashed up with snippets of the Andy Griffith theme and “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Callie scoots ahead of me to a cage of baby gray birds that flap their wings at each other and stumble around on a couple of dowels. She stands over a bag of bird food next to the cage and sticks her hand out to the person behind the table. I’m forgotten. Good. I know she’s not here—she never is—yet in places like this, I always look for Jojo. Even in old men’s faces.
I wander. There’s a group of girls about her age huddled near a bin of rubber toys, a few rows from where Callie chats about vitamins, minerals, polar vortexes, and whatever else. The girls wear sweatshirts and gloves with the fingers cut off, and one of them’s got a pink scarf wrapped thick around her neck. Inside the folds of the scarf sits a little blue bird—much smaller than the one being raffled. It’s nestled up close to the back of her head, secure, protected, separate from the noisy fuss around the hall.
The one with the scarf catches me looking. I smile at her. “What’s your bird’s name?”
“Dewdrop.” She reaches for the bird, and it nips at her fingers.
Her voice is airy like Jojo’s. I move in closer. I want to know if she smells like Jojo, that fresh mint with a hint of sweetness like overripe strawberries. She’s got the short hair, the chocolate-brown eyes. “I used to tend bar here,” I say. “Me and some buddies.”
“I didn’t know there was a bar.”
“Just a lot of codgers drinking brandy old-fashioneds. Shitty tippers. Never saw any pretty girls like you.” I wink at her. She looks away. That was too much, maybe.
“I’ve never been here before.”
“Where do you go?”
God, she’s cute. “No. Out.”
“Doesn’t matter. I got a place—”
“Can we help you?” asks a hateful-looking little blonde, separating herself from the group. The other girls get quiet and stare.
“I’m having a talk with your friend.”
“Maybe she doesn’t want to talk.”
“I’m a nice guy,” I tell her. “I’m inviting you girls out tonight.”
The little blonde snorts. “Like we’d go anywhere with you. You look like an old letch.”
She steps to the other side of my girl and whispers. My girl nods at her, tightens her scarf, doesn’t look back at me. Even her bird has ducked down into the folds. They’re all moving farther along the rows of tables when Callie comes over. She breathes into my neck and tugs my ear. “I put us in the raffle,” she says.
Her body is too warm, her arms too snug. I brush her away. I want to ask what her plan is; I want to squash it. I want to call her out for lying earlier. The hope in her voice is unmistakable—but I don’t say anything because, when I look at her, I know that hope isn’t for me. Maybe she found a group here, maybe she just wants to fall in line. Honestly, she’s never looked more at home. “I have to take a piss,” I tell her.
I leave her and walk back through the double doors. I think I’m leaving the place for good, but the woman at the card table wants to chat. Next to her, the green and yellow parrot balances on one foot with its head beneath a wing. It pulls a long feather through its beak, scrapes all the way to the tip, curls the feather in on itself. When it lets go, the feather snaps back into place. The parrot stops, looks up. It stares at me and unfolds its wings, stretches them wide. I wait for the punch line.
“Drawing’s coming up,” says the woman. “Your girl’s pretty excited about it.”
I nod. The bird flaps once, shakes out its tail feathers. Then it bends its head behind the wing again, ignores me.
“Damn excited. She wants to win.”
“They all do, don’t they?” I head over to the bathroom.
It’s empty in there except for me, and so cold I swear I can see my breath. My hand hovers over the walls, the window, to feel for the draft’s source. But I can’t tell where it’s seeping in. As I stand at the urinal I hear steps coming up behind—something like a click-clack, like the high heels she’d wear at the bar on Saturday nights—and I turn my head around hard, almost mess my shoes. “How the fuck could you—” I shout, but then I shut my mouth. The echo dies. Nobody’s there. I finish and zip up, thinking again that I should just get the hell out. That woman’ll pick the winner whether or not I’m around.
I move fast. I’ve got my hand on the door, I’m pulling it, already sensing a touch of warm air from the hallway—but then I stop when I hear voices there, on the other side. I step back from the door and wedge the trashcan lip under its handle.
What I want is a minute alone.
Cold rises up from the floor, bleeds through the glass, and creeps in through the walls. It carries a sickly sweet smell, coming from the cake at the bottom of the urinal. Wind gusts blow around the snow outside, rattle the window. I stare as bits of ice-hard snow tap against the glass. I stare for several minutes and watch the snow gather on the ledge like it just wants to be still for a while. Hollow bones, I remember, and probably it was Jojo who’d told me. Probably told me the morning we made love for the last time, when I was above her, looking into her beautiful face, telling her I wanted to put a baby in her. Probably told me those bones were made to fly and never come back. The whole time I’m in the bathroom, nobody tries the door handle.
Next to the card table with the green and yellow parrot, Callie waits for me, her head down, her gaze darting between the floor scuffs and people’s untied shoes. I ask her anyway: “Did you win?” She shakes her head and holds out her empty hands. I take them and squeeze, stretch out her arms to the side, try to cheer her up a little.
“You want to pick up some food for them? Some vitamins?”
“No,” she says. “It’s all for domestic birds.”
At the card table, the green and yellow parrot screeches and flaps as the woman pushes it into a tiny carrier. “Shhh,” she tells the bird, “you’re OK.” A tall man in a patchy brown coat drapes a sheet over the carrier and holds it under his arm. “It’ll quiet down,” says the woman. The man nods. The bird screams louder. “Congratulations!” she calls out, after they've gone down the hallway and into the cold.
Callie hasn’t moved. I’m surprised she’s taking it so hard.
I ask her, “What do you think people in China are doing?”
She says, “What can any of us do?”
I squeeze her fingers again, and she waves my hand away. I think she needs a minute, so I head to the coatroom to get our stuff, take time to check my pockets for my gloves and right the hangers.
When I return she thanks me for her coat, folds it over one arm. “I’ve got more feeders to fill,” she says and takes the car keys.
Outside, she opens the passenger door and flops onto the seat, starts the car and blasts the air conditioning. Her coat on her lap, her boots untied, the bag of sunflower seeds at her feet. I toss my gloves next to her mittens in the back. Next door, the girl in the drive-through screws up lunch orders. Across the parking lot, the hateful blonde and her friends argue about who should drive her parents’ van in the snow. These are the problems to have, I think, the meat of living. I get into the car and don’t adjust the vents. I ask Callie, “Where to?” and she gives me an address, opens her window a crack as we head on our way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Katherine Ann Davis earned an MFA from the University of Maryland and a PhD from the University of Tennessee. Her fiction appears in Passages North (online), Gigantic Sequins, Punchnel's, Nat. Brut, and elsewhere. She took third prize in Zoetrope: All Story's 2015 Short Story Contest and is a fiction editor for 3Elements Review.